- She had the acute foresight to tap into an un-targeted market segment in India at a time when women, who were primarily homemakers, were overlooked and virtually invisible.
Ektaa R. Kapoor recently won the 2023 International Emmy Directorate Award, acknowledging her meritorious contribution to Indian television over the last 30 years. Her name in the Indian television cosmos is one of the most revered and respected — as someone who changed the face and nature of content in Indian television with the advent of the terrestrial TV boom in India in the 1990s. The award, presented by the International Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, honors individuals or organizations for their outstanding contributions to international television.
Kapoor had the acute foresight to tap into an un-targeted market segment in India at a time when women, who were primarily homemakers, were overlooked and virtually invisible. At 17, she launched her production company, Balaji Telefilms, and became the youngest and one of the few women to dominate Indian television with sweeping, epic dramas. Nearly 30 years on, she has created and produced more than 17,000 hours of television and over 45 feature films.
Though Kapoor faced criticism for creating content that portrayed women as doormats to patriarchy — she, in fact, influenced and empowered an entire generation of women across industries in India to find their voice and pursue their dreams in a male-dominated society. Famously called the “queen of Indian television” — and honored with numerous awards, including the Padma Shri — today, Kapoor’s conviction and vision have catapulted her to become one of the most successful and powerful women in the Indian entertainment industry.
As the recipient of the International Emmy Directorate Award, she joins the ranks of past honorees such as Miky Lee (CJ Group), Christiane Amanpour (CNN), Sophie Turner Laing (Endemol Shine Group), and Richard Plepler (HBO), among others.
In New York City recently to attend the International Emmy Awards event, Kapoor spoke with American Kahani about what the Emmy win means for her, giving women a safe space in a male-dominant work environment and the inspirations behind some of her most beloved projects.
As the 2023 recipient of the International Emmy Directorate Award, what does this honor mean for you and your company Balaji Telefilms?
We started this company [Balaji Telefilms] exactly 30 years ago. I still remember when we started, it was so tough. We didn’t know where we were going and how we would do anything. But today, after 30 years, when I got this award, I realized that while everyone yesterday was asking me, “When is the India moment going to come?” — this is the India moment. This is a shot of encouragement to us to create content that can find its space and place on the global stage. And It wasn’t given to me, it was given to Indian television content — like “Come on spruce up, we’re waiting for you.” Korea has had its moment, and so has Turkey. And India is about to have it, I’m so sure. With all the nominations yesterday and the fact that [Indian comedian] Vir Das won, we’re now on the brink of taking this giant leap and creating International content from India. And Balaji will hopefully join that race to make that kind of content.
As the youngest and one of the first female executives/producers to break into the television space in India in the 1990s, how has the TV and film entertainment landscape evolved for women in terms of holding prominent positions as creative and business executives in the Indian film industry?
I still feel we are very far from the right number. We are still 13% in decision-making roles and 26.8% of women in the workforce in media. it’s still a far, far better number than what we were two decades ago — we’ve doubled. I think we need to create safe spaces for women to walk into a job, especially in India. I think all of us need to feel safe but women in India, more than the country and the economic or social situation, they need to build their confidence. And for that, women need to feel safe. And I think then they fly. I think it’s important that constantly there is representation. Constantly there are enough areas of encouragement created for women to walk into newer places, newer domains where they feel that they can now fight for their space and their rightful opportunities.
What advice would you impart to young women today seeking a career as an executive or producer in television or film?
Young women of today — I have very politically incorrect advice to give. I think there’s too much Instagram, too many photos, too much time to fit in. And too little of character, too little of self-belief, too little of — “Okay, I’m not like everyone else, I can be myself.” And I think that’s what we need to give — that belief that whatever you are, even if you’re a minority in your group or you are somebody that doesn’t have everything that makes you perfect, you still are whole.
You have created an entertainment content empire in India and in other parts of Asia and the Middle East. Do you have any plans to expand into Hollywood?
I don’t know about that. I’m just about to start my life back in Mumbai with a lot of new projects. Indian content will go global. I wouldn’t plan it for Hollywood, but I hope that it will travel to Hollywood. Who knows where life takes us?
What drives and motivates you to do what you do every day?
I’ve said this before, and I’m going to say it again — when you start your day and you feel most comfortable at the job you do and you feel you are a little out of place in your personal sphere — be it as a mother or a daughter, you realize your job is your calling. I don’t have to motivate myself to go to work. I need motivation to stay out of work! In most situations, things that people choose, and they like — I have very different choices. So I think when holidays come, I start panicking, like what do I do now! When it’s a Monday, I’m like “Yay, it’s a Monday, back to work!” And with my family, they accept me the way I am.
Looking back at your illustrious career of nearly 30 years, what are some of the projects and career moments you most cherish?
My most cherished project has to be “Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi.” It was the one I started getting really big recognition with. I saw that my nanny continued staying with me because her children had almost moved on with their lives. And I felt so connected with her that I decided in life I’m going to make her story. And then in a few years, she passed away after the show launched. I feel like the show gave me so much because it was her blessings. It’s the same for my first show, “Hum Paanch.” I don’t know where, what moment, which blessing came my way that Zee TV called me and gave me that chance. Otherwise, nothing would’ve happened. And of course the show “Kasauti Zindagii Ki,” because it’s an emotional love story. And it actually was a lot of me that I put into that show. It’s a personal landmark if not a professional one. Then I would say it is my film “The Dirty Picture.” I made that film because I was constantly told I was making stories about women who are conforming to society. Actually, that was not the case. They were the most ignored, and I want to tell their story. But then I said, “Okay, fine. This is a time I want to tell all stories about women. Why leave out those women who have lived their lives on their own terms?” So I wanted a character who was overweight, who owned up to her sexuality, everything that would be frowned upon by society. And Vidya Balan [who essayed the title role] was amazing. There was no other actor who could have done that role. And when India accepted the film, I felt accepted. I felt validated. I felt finally our country is appreciating a woman who does not live on other people’s dictates.
(Top photo, Producer Ektaa R. Kapoor receives the 2023 International Emmy Directorate Award in New York City on Nov 20, 2023. Photo Courtesy of International Television Academy.)
Sunil Sadarangani is a Los Angeles-based award-winning producer and writer.